The Serpent, on Netflix, is based on the true story of Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), aka gem-dealer “Alain Gautier”, aka many other names, as he robs, murders, and then steals the identities of backpacking hippies as they tramp through East Asia in the 1970’s. When a Dutch couple goes missing in Bangkok, their concerned parents reach out to the Dutch embassy there, launching diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) on an obsessive search to find them. The series has two narrative strands. One follows the activities of Sobhraj and his accomplices, Ajay Chowdhury (Amesh Edireweera) and Marie-Andrée Leclerc, aka “Monique” (Jenna Coleman) as they use the money stolen from backpackers to live a glamorous life at a Bangkok apartment complex. The other follows Knippenberg in his desperate quest to gather enough evidence to get Sobhraj and his gang arrested for the murders of the Dutch backpackers, whose remains are found and identified. The story jumps around in time in order to maximize the suspense, which bothered some viewers, but I was OK with it.
Sobhraj and his gang
Charles Sobhraj is an interesting figure, because although he killed many people, he is not a typical serial killer. He’s not a lone wolf; he doesn’t do it for pleasure or sexual gratification. His are crimes of opportunity. He finds naïve hippie backpackers, encourages them to come stay with him and his wife for a real meal and a hot shower, and then he poisons them, allowing them to believe they have food poisoning. While the guests are indisposed, he robs them of their money and, most importantly, their passports, which he later doctors with his own photo. Then he has to get rid of them so they can’t ever identify him. And yet…why lure them to the house and poison them at all? Why not slip them a mickey at a party and steal their money and passports there? So, there is something that gratifies Sobhraj in acting like the generous and wealthy host, and then making his guests suffer terribly until they come to a bad (sometimes burned alive) end.
When we first meet Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée, whether they are hosting a swinging pool party at their “home”, or selling loose gemstones to dewy-eyed backpackers, they seem like a glamorous, long-time couple. Hence, it’s shocking when you find out (not a spoiler) that really, they just met. Sobhraj had a knack for drawing people to him that wanted to buy what he was selling, whether it was friendship, adventure or simply a new life with a new identity. Marie-Andrée is desperate for a new identity, not because she is a criminal, but because she doesn’t like who she is. So, when Sobhraj says, “You are going to be Monique,” she doesn’t hesitate. “Monique”, wife to a gem dealer, is chic, hiding behind Jackie-O sunglasses, wearing scarves in her hair. But she is also a beard that makes Sobhraj appear safe, and an accomplice to murder.
Ajay is an Indian friend who Sobhraj picked up sometime in the past. He uses his charm to wrangle promising hitchhikers, who most likely have a stash of money, bringing them home to Tanit House, which is not actually a house, but an apartment complex. Ajay is up for robbing rich young hippies, but balks at killing them. Eventually, Sobhraj manipulates Ajay into helping him.
Unfortunately, Herman Knippenberg is a far less interesting character. His entire story line is about how frustrating it is to work through the bureaucracies of the Dutch embassy and the Thai police to catch a known killer. Eventually he is able to convince the Belgian and American diplomats (Tim McInnerny and Adam Rothenberg) who are much more interesting characters, to help him. The way that The Serpent is edited, between Sobhraj’s story and Knippenberg’s, leads to some extremely suspenseful Rear Window-like moments, so the dual narrative does pay off.
The Serpent is more than just a crime drama; it’s also a peak into a lifestyle, that of hitchhiking through 1970’s Asia. The show is set in various exotic cities, such as Nepal, Bangkok, Delhi and Hong Kong; the so-called “Hippie Trail”. The producers really immerse you in the scene with their fantastic production design. From the clothes to the décor to using actual archival footage of the cities to start segments, there is an authenticity to the show that immediately draws you in. Also, I loved the way they filmed Tanit House to seem so glamorous at the beginning of the series, and then slowly exposed it as a grubby, cheap apartment complex as time went on. It represented Sobhraj’s façade, chipping away to expose the lurid killer that he was.
Our Take on The Serpent
The Serpent isn’t a perfect series, but it’s gripping. I personally liked the editing back and forth between timelines, so that an object that seems meaningless in one time frame becomes an important clue in another. This editing style also allows for some gasp-inducing moments and stomach clenching suspense. But mostly, if The Serpent is about who people are, versus who they seem to be (or want to be), editing in this way cleverly controls our first impressions, later exposing the grim reality. My only real beefs are that they could have used an actual Dutch actor for Knippenberg (Howle is British), and that Tahar Rahim’s performance seems a little robotic. I’ve seen footage of the real Charles Sobhraj, and he seems more charming in real life. And this is a problem because we are supposed to believe that strangers found him trustworthy and warm enough to go to his home. The other thing is, The Serpent could have been an episode or so shorter. It does start to drag a bit. But, other than that, between the suspense and the exotic locale, I was hooked. Let me know what you think.
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